NARRAGANSETT — They lined up for introductions in mismatched uniforms, some in varsity jerseys, some in junior varsity gear. Out to the net ran the team manager. The sweeper was returning to the soccer field after playing travel basketball the last few months. A few players with varsity experience stood alongside underclassmen whose debut was coming here, in a Division II quarterfinal playoff game.
Unfortunate circumstances out of its own control brought the Prout girls soccer team to this point. It had been a rollercoaster of emotions. Disappointment will always linger, but on Tuesday night, as the girls in mismatched uniforms did all they could in a 2-0 defeat, the journey landed on pride.
“I don’t even have the words to describe how those girls played tonight,” head coach Christina Armstrong said.
The scenario that played out Tuesday had roots on Nov. 5, when Prout fought Chariho to a 1-1 tie. The result continued a strong season for the Crusaders, who believed they were a Division II championship contender. Two days later, they dominated Exeter-West Greenwich in a 9-1 victory, which put their record at 5-1-2.
Then news came in that a Chariho player had returned a positive test for COVID-19. Rhode Island Interscholastic League and Department of Health protocols dictate that both teams in such a situation must quarantine for two weeks. Prout officials pleaded their case, but got nowhere.
The 14-day timeframe would keep the varsity team sidelined until Nov. 19, the date of the Division II semifinals and past the quarterfinal round.
“We have eight seniors. Seven of them are quarantined. We had one varsity member left. We fought for them so hard,” Armstrong said. “We got unlucky, one exposure on Chariho. Two negative tests for us, 12 days of quarantine, no symptoms. Very unfortunate circumstances, but they had nothing but support for the younger girls.”
Those younger girls represented the one alternative the Crusaders could pursue. Only players who had been on the field in the Chariho game were required to quarantine. That left swing players who play mostly junior varsity and dress for the varsity squad, plus full-time JV players. Add in a few reinforcements, and the Crusaders had a squad with which they could chase the improbable.
And they certainly chased.
For most of Tuesday’s first half, Prout kept West Warwick off the board despite being buried in its own end of the field. The defense clamped down on opportunities and goalie Annie Demers made all the stops.
The dream finally took a hit in the stretch run of the first half. West Warwick broke the scoreless deadlock in the 34th minute. Three minutes later, the Wizards struck again. Still, the Crusaders kept pushing, even generating some offensive pressure in the second half.
“For 75 minutes, it was a zero-zero game,” Armstrong said.
When it ended, the players embraced. Coaches delivered an emotional postgame message.
“They 100 percent gave it all they had,” Armstrong said. “They left their hearts out on the field. I told them, ‘You should have no absolutely no regrets. There’s nothing to be ashamed of.’”
It was a team that would never have been together if not for the circumstances. Demers, a sophomore, was the team manager in the regular season, watching from the scorer’s table.
“She said, ‘I haven’t played since February.’ But the positive attitude. She was like, ‘But, I’m so excited,’” assistant coach Belle Pesante said. “It was just so cool. If that doesn’t represent what we had. And that came from every single player on the field. They were like, ‘We can do this.’ It was awesome.”
Kelsey McKenna had to decide between soccer and travel basketball this fall. She settled on basketball, but when she heard about the soccer team’s tight spot, she volunteered to help, got her required practices in and suited up.
Senior Bella Merolla hadn’t played in the Chariho game. She took on even more of a leadership role than she had in her captaincy for the varsity team.
All around the field, Prout’s players rose to the occasion as best they could. On top of everything, the effort came on the heels of limited practice time because of a positive test within Prout’s school community.
“We only had two practices together, so we only had those two days to prepare,” junior Alex Gencarelli said. “I think we played well, holding our own with this team.”
It fit with the team identity Prout had embraced since day one.
“They were doing it all for each other, all season,” Pesante said. “I’ve never seen a team want to play for each other more. It was really cool to watch, and I think that came out today. They fought for each other, they fought for our varsity team and they put out a great effort.”
The sadness and frustration will persist for the varsity players who didn’t get their opportunity. In this pandemic year, there has been collateral damage for athletes. Even with perspective, it can be hard to swallow. Spring sports were canceled. And Prout isn’t alone in this fall season. Tiverton’s boys and girls soccer teams forfeited playoff games due to COVID exposure from an opponent.
“It’s very sad,” Armstrong said. “We feel for the seniors. I think this could have been our year with that squad.”
“We could have never imagined this happening,” Pesante said. “We were on a roll. Never in a million years did we imagine this happening. But we got dealt these cards and we made the most of it.”
The result was a little bit of light in the darkness.
“We just watched 80 minutes of pure heart,” Pesante said.